kelen on the Re-Demonisation of Aboriginal Australia

The Re-Demonisation of Aboriginal Australia:

Civilisation, Barbarism and Indigeneity in the Post-Consensus Era

by Christopher Kelen

University of Western Sydney, Nepean

A macabre joke with some currency in Australia now runs as follows: Ivan Milat is walking through the forest with a backpacker. The backpacker says to him “It’s getting dark and scary in here.” Milat replies “You’re scared? I’m the one who’s got to walk back by myself.”

In this scenario something characteristically Australian is inscribed as a revision of common knowledge about the normative and its outside – likewise foreignness, nativeness, fear. Explaining is supposed to kill a joke, but the Milat joke seems wrier the more it is thought on. It depends on a trick of identification which makes the appreciator of the joke uneasy and the joke subversive of the justice which has Milat behind bars. This is because the joke is about the identity and alterity of its audience, and the logic which takes in those who follow it is uncannily like other logics which have taken them in. Who are we? Who do we think we are? In what senses are we of this place? What if our real relation to this place, as ours, were by means of murder; a murder which makes places ours, places us, a murder we laugh off as if it were nothing or something now which cannot be helped, someone else’s murder or something to forget, a joke to even mention it? It cannot be pinned on us.

Do we protest too much?

We laugh at having caught ourselves identifying with a murderer and with his irrational fears (of the dark, the forest, the foreign place).

Take a step back from this joke, its commentary , one packed with social critique, one which (in the Freudian manner, one could say) judges the whole of society by a particular, aberrant and distasteful pathology. Many Australians must find this joke and the commentary unconvincing, unaustralian, inauthentic. Do they, by means of this attitude, this finding unfunny, exclude themselves from its audience? Or are those who cannot or will not laugh a necessary part of any joke’s audience; those, for instance, whom the joke is on?

In the here and now Australian society continues to be one in which all sorts of convenient amnesias are able to be switched on. The decades of dispossession were followed by decades of amnesia, so that assimilation was their continuation under another name. A characteristic (and sometimes literal) expression of amnesia in the sixties, before Random Breath Testing, was the hungover male’s excuse: “Can’t remember how I got home”. Not remembering how we got here has been a national pastime, it has been for us the sine qua non of nationhood. This refusal of reflection is as authentically Australian a posture as any other we can name. It was a real response to a certain kind of horror, a real aversion to a certain knowledge which touched on the meaning of being here. It was a subversion of the circuit of collective self-justification and as such a means of disconnecting oneself from the official means of being here, this in favour of merely being here in the now. It was, as the Ivan Milat of the Belangelo joke, a displacement of fear from the mindset of the killer or potential killer or accessory after the fact. The primal crime enabling possession by such means is naturalised, cast back into the before of history, the before of civilisation; so that we now are neither implicated nor competent to offer evidence. It is as if there were a means of forgetting, even a temporary means, which could serve as absolution. Just as amnesia en masse was the authentic means by which one or more generations coped with the contradiction of their fine ideals being founded on genocide, so the question for the children of that amnesia is how to respond authentically to a knowledge of it.

The end of the consensus  era in Australian politics brings Aboriginal Australia into the spotlight as a new kind of object, re-demonised in the name of a new alterity. After the failure of assimilation, the opponents of multiculturalism refuse black Australia its indigeneity, preferring to paint it as a a foreign threat. When black Australia was demonised as native it was as the personification of a land that was hostile, alien, only marginally habitable ( only habitable by the marginal ). Now that that stigma, which associates the white edge with the black edge, is dispelled, and their traditional conflict may be recommenced, the Aborigine is not regarded as of the land at all. He is a land predator, at best a prodigal, and his lack of continuity with land which people have worked and battled for, is demonstrated by their presence. The land for these sons and daughters of the soil is benign, unthreatening, theirs. They are there because they’re tough enough to do it hard in the bush, with floods and droughts and all sorts of stuff city folk would not understand. Just as the city cannnot understand the blacks. It was the city – in 1967 -which voted to make the blacks citizens, to make them people…What is there to understand? The unassimilable black behaves barbarically in the house his betters have given out of charity. He tears up the floorboards, makes corroboree. Money he drinks. He goes walkabout, reverts to the permanence of his condition – an indolent and no doubt mysogenist stupor. This much of the stereotype presents as a continuity with the assimilationist past – the past in which it was thought possible to de-aboriginalise individuals.

But the unassimilable black is no longer placidly waiting for handouts. He intends to harness the law in the service of his aim, to rob the rightful owners of everything. He especially wants to rob governments, which as we know is the same as robbing everyone. The unassimilable black claims we, collectively, owe him. How infuriating this is for the inheritors of family land. The demons they drove off in establishing law ( where there was none ) return magically from the inside of the law. But frontiers are notoriously lawless and there is a long history of desertion by the law of those who have carried out its spirit if not letter ( e.g., the Myall Creek massacre and its consequences ). The law, that is, depended on the pretence that the land was pacified. It never sanctioned the most effective means by which this policy was to be carried out.

Terra Nullius was, as the Republic now is, based on a prospective nostalgia: the law imagined the land clear of blacks. Its most marginal participants and large sums of money were invested in the dirty work of bringing that emptiness about. Today the Aborigine is not of the place. He has forfeited that right by virtue of his condition and now he comes back, not as a ghost among us, but as a threat from the outside, hanging on borders, about to pour over through the desert places ( the places where we are least able to protect ourselves ). He is an invader.

The alterity of the Aboriginal threat to the property of Australians is now constructed as continuous with the threat to Australia constituted by other races, by the generalised outside, especially to the north – or should we say east, because it is European possessions which are threatened. Anyone who watches the media coverage which perpetually shows that nothing can be done for these people, realises that they are, whatever the ironies, a refugee population. They live in the wastes, beyond the boundaries of what we know as society. As is always the case with refugee populations, it is we, who, whatever compassion we show, are not responsible for them.

At the time of the 1996 Federal election Noel Pearson commented that what the slogan of the Conservative side of politics, ‘ for all of us ‘ implied was, ‘ but not for

you ‘. A feigned inclusiveness. The government is tired of what it wants to paint as this old rhetoric, the black arm band view. How can we progress if our noses are being rubbed in the dirty past all the time? It is a shame that we have to keep resorting to these larger truths which situate us, instead of just getting on with our business. But getting on with our business, it turns out, means compounding shame upon shame. Legally it means perjuring ourselves over and over, ethically it means making new shames, new desecrations. Is that not the nature of civilisation? Is that not what its rhetoric conceals?

Civilisation imagines itself as the perfect continuity, in which time is heaped in Freud’s parable, in “Civilisation and its Discontents” (1952, pp. 768-9), of all the cities of Rome coexisting in the one time. An imperial centre depends on its perception of a barbaric outside. Romans and Huns, Crusaders and Moslems, Americans and Iraqis: the pattern of civilised centre and outside threat is one endlessly iterated in those histories which have been of civilisations. Note that while, by and large, ancient empires turned indigenes into barbarians or citizens (i.e. homogenised them as other or ours ), the effect of modern empires has been just the reverse: the generalised barbarism of the outside by which Europe, wary of creating citizens, framed itself, was gradually tamed (if not domesticated) into a (museum) collection of doomed indigeneities.

For the Romans the outside which barbarism implies, was not, as for the Greeks, of language or culture, but rather of the law. By the time of the late empire the classification and legal status of barbarians is complex, and, like the borders of the empire, in a state of continuous flux. It becomes uncertain, not that the borders of the empire exist but, rather, how to describe the nature of the difference between what those borders include and what they exclude. From a modern point of view we can see barbarians (of the invasions, of the menace to borders, of the lost provinces) as reversing a polarity which was entailed in Roman expansion: while Rome expanded it was Rome which made mongrels, in its decline it is barbarians who make mongrels of the Romans. The pragmatic and hybridising empire is defeated by its own method.

Gibbon emphasises for the Huns their continuity (as vast as the wastes they tame in traversing) with Mongols of the next millennium and with Herodotus’ Scythians of the millennium before. Gibbon shows the Scythians or inhabitants of Tartary in their “naked and most disgusting simplicity”. And Gibbon breaks with his customary past tense to describe the eternal present of the shepherds of the North, who have repeatedly overturned the thrones of Asia (1877, Vol IV, p. 262). He notes that Atilla expressed his “consciousness of his superiority above the rest of mankind” through the “custom of fiercely rolling his eyes, as if he wished to enjoy the terror which he inspired” (1877, Vol VI, pp. 4-5). Gibbon’s account of the barbarians, though further removed from first hand witness than that of his classical models, yet lacks their ambivalence. The I have heard another tale, very different from this (1952, p. 137) tone with which Herodotus paints Scythia as a collection of barbaric curiosities, gives way in Gibbon to the homogenised outside of the mind of law. The edge of the Herodotus’ world may seem fanciful to us, as in the description of the country to the north of the Scythians as “concealed from sight and made impassable by reason of the feathers which are shed abroad abundantly” (1952, p. 125). But where Herodotus places himself, it seems unreflectingly, in a chain of uncertainties (to which we must admit he is both spatially and temporally in far greater proximity than Gibbon), Gibbon gives us an impression of eyewitness accuracy, an omniscience over millennia and over a vast and certain terrain.

Barbarism becomes what the mind imagines to be outside of the continuities enabling the mind. It will be, as in Said’s orientalism, the process by which the mind makes itself in the guise of imaging its other. As long as history remains singular it is doomed to exercise a panopticism over those objects and events it embraces. As long as a single law is required, let us say to rule the seas, those who, for whatever reason, fail to obey such a law will be pirates. The doctrine of universal human rights denies the ethical viability of tying such an abstraction as barbarism (the outside of the law to which all are entitled to belong) to any condition genetically or culturally inherited. Unfortunately it finds itself relying on just such conditions in deciding which are the laws to which all must be subject. It is not the conditions of every culture which will be imposed on the collectivity of peoples. The default standard of law is Europe’s, and not withstanding the military strength of European peoples, it is not generally necessary that armies enforce this standard.

For Levinas “History is worked over by the ruptures of history, in which a judgement is borne upon it. When man truly approaches the Other he is uprooted from history.” (1969, p. 52) But the viability and authenticity of that project, of truly approaching the other/Other, is brought into question by the reflexive entailments of any consciousness of the means of approach.

Lyotard claims that society is inhabited by differends. He writes that:

there is a differend between two parties when the ‘settlement’ of the conflict that opposes them appears in the idiom of one of them while the tort from which the other suffers cannot signify itself in the idiom. ( 1993, p 9 )

That situation, I would argue, obtains wherever a law is the possession of particular parties, such as is suggested in the observation that “a universal rule of judgement between heterogeneous genres is lacking in general” (1988, p. xi). Lyotard defines the differend as “the unstable state and instant of language wherein something which must be put into phrases cannot yet be” (1988, p.13). As such we may regard it as what lies between the communities which are implied in a speech intelligible to its participants.

Paradoxically a fashion for historicizing (Jameson, 1981, p. 9; Guillory, 1993, p. 26; Le Doeuff, 1989, p. 15), as if that were the cure for any kind of metaphysical lapse into eternal verity/ies, betrays a similar difficulty: the relativising of knowledges of the past catches itself in a loop, which for our purposes could be called eternal, or at least totalising. To look ahead then is to concede the contingency of at best a misreading: that would be how one (and one’s context) would be made sense of. What if our past could never be more than a picture of ourselves wondering, albeit in a well informed and best intentioned way, despite doubts, about how we got to be here wondering? This is exactly how a literate homeostatic view takes the alleged past of oral cultures (cf. Ong, 1988, pp. 46-9 ), as a construct which, however unconsciously, functions to serve the purposes of a present social order. It would be naïve to think that literate or print or digital societies have a technological protection from the ongoing process of revision and relativising which the effort at origins appears universally to demand. No self-respecting ironist would argue for a society which truly has access to the only correct version of its past. So where does historicizing get us and how is it an improvement on the privileged view of the past which a universal view claims not to be by making itself the only view? Historicizing shows us into a circle which it cannot resolve because its terms are prior to the objects it considers. If the past shapes us – and what else but the past can – it does this by the means of memory and forgetting, such as live in its tangible signs; by means of word and image. We do not tell the past how to shape us and yet we have some choices in the process.

In Queensland, we have just witnessed the division of the conservative side of politics into two camps – haves and have-nots or liberals and bigots or the self-interested v. the unintelligent. The question I would like to ask of these characters is – how much of a differend is there between them? A rhetorical question: Howard’s nemesis seems to be among those who have taken his rhetoric seriously. What he tells us that he looks forward to is the past. Security of the white bread and picket fence, white collar variety. But really the future is full of privatisation, rationalisation, downsizing, globalising, being realistic. The future is OK if you can adapt to it. If you vote for One Nation you’re more likely the type to sit on the verandah, polishing your gun, waiting to pick off that future as it turns into your driveway.

And little Johnny? This frightened rabbit now realises his life-long yearning for the middle of the road. That’s where he sits transfixed now as the high beam of a big semi bears down on him. Remaining in the middle is an art which requires constant adjustment to objective conditions through the ironic process of homeostasis: the past of which we are undeniably the product is subject to constant revision in order to meet the exigencies of the present in which it is recieved. Where this becomes obvious it can appear as obnoxious – as it might in the case of one culture observing another – Japanese rewriting the history of WWII so that they seem not to have done anything wrong, seem to have committed no atrocities and merely been the unlucky losers.

The opposite process in fashion in western countries – writing history with a conscience that takes into account the story of indigenous peoples – peoples avowedly doomed by earlier histories – this process meets the demands of a society which wishes to see itself as pluralist, heterogeneous – as including the narratives of the losers so that their descendants can be reincorporated into a just polity which does not exclude from its citizenry the ones who were marked to but did not disappear.

Is that kind of writing still history? Whose purposes would be served to say so?

N.writes to judge is to be unjust. Best to first judge ourselves? Let us begin with the blindspot to which historicising and homeostasis draw attention. And in that process let us acknowledge that most of the techniques and the models of thousands of years available to us for these purposes – come to us from that unjust narrative of judged judgements which has been called history.

Dreams, in their relation to waking, model the inversion which characterises the world as ideological. Discounted in more or less the way that false consciousness is discounted (by a view over it, a waking view) dreams offer the thetic consciousness a pause in its process, which allows stock to be taken, by, as it were, a view outside of but not over that consciousness. The relationship between dream and waking states appears to model that between the sides of a differend, between for instance, official and unofficial consciousness. Is the other side not always dreaming?

Is history like this? Is it the picture of a world in which the waking always run the risk, as Descartes did in the Meditations, of being caught dozing, so waking to a world unlike the one known, and in which selves are no longer themselves? Such is the world that Walter Wanger’s 1956 anti-communist/anti-McCarthyist (depending on your reading position) horror spoof Invasion of the Body Snatchers parodies: a moment’s sleep is enough for the alien mind to get hold of you and there goes your soul. Your past, all the past will have a different meaning then. You look the same, you know everything you knew before but you are not you. You do not feel anything because, in the manner of the dreamer, you are not quite in the world.

Between white and black in this country the differend appears to be much as between dreaming and waking. How can, for instance, Koori read gubba consciousness but as a succession of dreamstates which open onto each other without a moment’s waking: the dream of an empty land, the dream of a dying race, the dream of their becoming us, the dream that all is forgiven and that one speaks on equal terms.

How does white Australia talk itself through that succession of dreams and their personae which bring about its present consciousness? In a dialogue, yes, but how would reconciliation be brought about when the authentic dialogue which white wants with black in this country is akin to the dialogue a truck driver might want with someone who has been run over by him and lies unconscious on the road. I was driving the truck just a few moments ago but now I have stepped down, I want to help, at least to feel entitled to do what I need to do in order to get on with my life. I want to finish the business, to put this event behind me. Somehow, though, I never get any satisfaction from the victim (my personal victim) who, to the extent that s/he survives becomes more and more demanding in the measure that s/he becomes less and less deserving (less and less my victim, that is). Her/his argumentativeness, as it builds, likewise serves to demonstrate the passing of the danger I perceived her/him to be in: a danger I must acknowledge, which this body in evidence constitutes, of the potentially criminal effects of my action.

Had s/he lain there like a corpse, in the very act of making me culpable, then s/he would truly have been subject to my authentic outpourings: of grief, of guilt. Imagine her/him though as a sentience, embodied or floating over the scene, witnessing my acts, my trials after the event. Those “last of their tribe” colonial depictions – portraits, busts, poems, daguerreotypes – haunt us in museums now, as reminders of culpable acts – perhaps as they were meant to.

But let us put all that behind us. I have turned over a new leaf. Society is different. I want to understand you, know you, make you a presence. Already I have elevated you from inert object to a sentience on a par with my own. But I sense a resistance. You don’t believe I have really changed? Then I’ll do that believing for you. I’ll show you how it’s done. Would that not be within the exercise of the rights of identity required by the will to reconciliation? How, after all, can I be in any sort of relationship with you if I cannot write about you, with you, for you, against you? How dare you deprive me of my right to imagine, to communicate, to be with you, to be everywhere and everyone at once. It is almost a duty in my tradition. And if you face the facts you will have to acknowledge that it is your tradition too. Why should I be deprived of a freedom to take from you this last gram of identity, when I have already taken all the rest? Intellectual honesty demands of me that I acknowledge how inauthentic your claims to indigeneity now are. It is I who, in reminding you of the scale of your loss, must inform you that you cannot be who you think you are. It is no longer your loss which you mourn. It is somebody else’s loss, one from which we are virtually now both at the same distance. And so you see I do have the right to speak for you, and for the pain and loss which you mourn as yours but I know equally as mine.

By this means a sensitivity to the facts of dispossession is able to be deployed in the ongoing cause of dispossession, as the argument, for instance, that you have no voice. Richard Rorty, in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity writes that the oppressed, deprived of a voice, can only be spoken for. For him the victims of cruelty:

do not have much in the way of a language. That is why there is no such thing as the “voice of the oppressed” or the “language of the victims”. The language the victims once used is not working anymore, and they are suffering too much to put new words together. So the job of putting their situation into words is going to have to be done for them by somebody else. (1989, p. 94)

This is that speech which if for them thus becomes, however it arises, the sign and the means of their oppression. We know the oppressed by this lack which maintains their condition and makes them our responsibility. How do they and we (whatever the overlap) get out of this circle?

Writers, artists of any sort, have the clearest responsibilities where agendas are unspoken. There is a vocation to tell what is meant but will not be said, to speak the silence in which the crime goes on because it goes on covering itself in the manner of those accepted facts which are always before our eyes. In Australia the effect of the terra nullius doctrine is that the land has been emptied (albeit retrospectively) of its ethical contents: realising this means realising that there is no ethical basis for the state. It is by means of evacuation of ethics that Aborigines are portrayed as the new fifth columnists in Australian society, the agents of a barbarism which the big owners (of land, of capital) claim as foreign to our way of life.

In Australia today, in the great amorphous debate which is emerging over the culture of identity and rights of possession, it appears more and more to be the case that the languages spoken (and unspoken) by the antagonists in this debate are mutually unintelligible. Reconciliation and certainty. They represent the differend between two mythologies: of terra nullius and the Dreaming, of land which is possessed and land which possesses. Both are claimed as aboriginal myths in that they both posit their bearers as the autochthonous Australians, inheritors of a right. But, in the terms Lyotard articulates, the differend between these positions throws into question the very idea of rights of inheritance. This is because just as “it is in the nature of a victim not to be able to prove that one has been done a wrong” so the perfect crime consists, not in killing the victim, but in “obtaining the silence of the witnesses, the deafness of the judges, and the inconsistency (insanity) of the testimony” (1988, p. 8). This scenario assumes that the law is able to stand between plaintiff and defendant. While this may be becoming true, such a separation has not been constitutive of the law in this case, but rather of the image it has promoted of itself. Lyotard writes that a plaintiff loses the means to prove having been done a wrong, “if the author of the damage turns out directly or indirectly to be one’s judge” (1988, p. 8). If in the colonial world this can be generally claimed as the pattern, it is because one law buried another, buried the differend between it and its other. Because it is in the nature (or de-naturing) of laws to be one. And it is in the culture of ones to have others, to be stood outside of and neither to comprehend the differend beyond themselves nor the differends within: enabling as they must have been of the synthesis by which the law became one.

In Strangers to Ourselves Kristeva writes: “The foreigner is within us. And when we flee from or struggle against the foreigner, we are fighting our unconscious – that ‘improper’ facet of our impossible ‘own and proper’.” (1991, p. 191) For Kristeva, psychoanalysis is a journey into two strangenesses: that of the other and of the self (1991, p. 182). Kristeva asks us how we could tolerate foreigners if we did not know ourselves as strangers.

Levinas again:

The infinity of responsibility denotes not its actual immensity, but a responsibility increasing in the measure that it is assumed; duties become greater in the measure that they are accomplished. The better I accomplish my duty the fewer rights I have; the more I am just the more guilty I am. (1969, p. 245)

Herein lies the pastoralist’s (and the prime minister’s) nightmare: indigenous claims will always be the thin edge of the wedge, the crime enabling can never be expiated. I do not succeed in wishing myself away any more than a photographer of wilderness succeeds in erasing the track by which s/he came and which s/he does not show. If the land were emptied of invaders tomorrow, if the descendants of the invaders were to divest themselves of the spoils, what would they be giving back, how would the land returned resemble the land invaded? That land no longer exists. How would we tell its new old inhabitants (and their means of possession) apart from their dispossessors? Indeed how can we now? When everyone puts the empire behind them, when nobody wishes to be a colonist, how viable (and for whom) is the indigene’s persona?

And what kind of dreams/ nightmares infest the consciousness of black Australia. Are they such as those suggested in writing by Robert Walker (1958-1984), before he was beaten to death in Fremantle Prison:

Unreceived Messages

Am I dreaming?

There you are.

Here am I.

… But your gaze

Is beyond me.

You are speaking,

Your words are clear.

I am speaking.

You do not hear.

Inside – I move disturbed.

“I know you”

You echo: “I know you”.

I reach out – but touch not.

My body still – still my body,

And still again I have failed

To communicate.

My feet are walking,

My mind recalling the words we spoke

To one another – but not at all.

Sorrow seeps through my shell

Touching me – and I turn with joy.

In the line for lunch

I drift into oblivion again,

Weary from my efforts

To reach you – to know you

Like you say you know me.

The key turns – the day dies.

And once again I am born.

A child gasping for his first breath of life,

Crawling weakly from a plastic egg

To surface in a prison cell.

The pen – automatic

Like the beat of my heart.

Pain – a stranger to me –

Stops all but my heart.

Acid tears burning chips of egg shell.

I feel

And write life in every stroke.

The threat of death in every still moment.

Time circles above me like a vulture,

Then crawls on like a dying man.

Sleep – the semen of death

Draws me into its lust.

The night dies – and once again I am conceived

Oblivious to the life outside of my shell

For again but a foetus – awaiting release.

(in Gilbert, 1988, pp. 130-1)